Monday, October 19, 2009

CineAsia Spotlight: The Message

One of the more gratifying things to come along to our local multiplex in the past year or so has been the availability of more Asian cinema programming in the form of CineAsia. It seemed like it came out of nowhere, without any fanfare; the first CineAsia flick I recall seeing was the Donnie Yen bone-snapper Ip Man earlier this year (which reportedly packed houses consistently during its run). Since then they've supplied a steady stream of Asian flicks (Korean, Hong Kong, Chinese etc), including Ong Bak 2, The Underdog Knight, Murderer and the brilliant Accident - all which I'm totally thankful for being able to catch on the big screen. Not everything's super, but making them available is a great thing for fans.

Currently playing is the Mainland Chinese feature The Message, an old-fashioned wartime spy yarn that's worth a look if you like twisty whodunits. Set in Nanjing during the 1940s Sino-Japanese war, the film's premise involves the Japanese Intelligence trying to capture a resistance leader who's been bumping off their officials. They think there's a mole (dubbed "the Phantom") in their counterinsurgency center, and to flush them out, 5 of the suspected department's officers are sent to a remote castle where they'll be submitted to a succession of brutal interrogations and devious mindgames.

I dig red herring-peppered Agatha Christie-style drawing room mysteries, and The Message definitely engages on that level. Though there aren't that many suspects, it keeps us guessing and fingers pointing like any good mystery should. The film also features a number of fairly gruesome torture scenes - the most grisly probably too R-rated to talk about in detail here (let's just say it employs a rope and positions a woman in a compromising position) - and its dark, grungy palette occasionally makes you feel like you've just walked into some sort of Saw-inspired torture-fest.

The Message doesn't quite make it to the finish line with the assuredness of its opening scenes: the non-stop swooshing, hand-held camerawork wore me down eventually and detracted from the film's suspense, while the uneven CGI work is distracting and at odds with the gritty subject and tone (I'm sick of blatantly digital aerial shots being used to capture a sense of grandeur; see most recently, Red Cliff, and pretty much any other big battle epics of the last 10 years). Also the wrap-up isn't as satisfying as I'd like; it's neatly resolved, but didn't quite give me a case of the HOLY-SH*T-SO-THAT'S-WHAT-HAPPENED?! Still worth checking out though, and it's been getting positive notices around the place. Here's the trailer (no English subs):

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